Gateway to the Classics: The Story of the Middle Ages by Samuel B. Harding
The Story of the Middle Ages by  Samuel B. Harding

Life of the Village and Town

O NE thing about the life of the knights and squires has not yet been explained; that is, how they were supported. They neither cultivated the fields, nor manufactured articles for sale, nor engaged in commerce. How, then, were they fed and clothed, and furnished with their expensive armor and horses? How, in short, was all this life of the castle kept up,—with its great buildings, its constant wars, its costly festivals, and its idleness?

We may find the explanation of this in the saying of a bishop who lived in the early part of the Middle Ages. "God," said he, "divided the human race from the beginning into three classes. There were, the priests, whose duty it was to pray and serve God; the knights, whose duty is was to defend society; and the peasants, whose duty it was to till the soil and support by their labor the other classes." This, indeed, was the arrangement as it existed during the whole of the Middle Ages. The "serfs" and "villains" who tilled the soil, together with the merchants and craftsmen of the towns, bore all the burden of supporting the more picturesque classes above them.

The peasants were called "serfs" and "villains," and their position was very curious. For several miles about the castle, all the land belonged to its lord, and was called, in England, his "manor." He did not own the land outright,—for, as you know, he did homage and fealty for it to his  lord or "suzerain," and the latter in turn owed homage and fealty to his  "suzerain," and so on up to the king. Neither did the lord of the castle keep all of the manor lands in his own hands. He did not wish to till the land himself, so most of it was divided up and tilled by peasants, who kept their shares as long as they lived, and passed them on to their children after them. As long as the peasants performed the services and made the payments which they owed to the lord, the latter could not rightfully turn them out of their land.

The part of the manor which the lord kept in his own hands was called his "domain," and we shall see presently how this was used. In addition there were certain parts which were used by the peasants as common pastures for their cattle and sheep; that is, they all had joint rights in this. Then there was the woodland to which the peasants might each send a certain number of pigs to feed upon the beech nuts and acorns. Finally there was the part of the manor which was given over to the peasants to till.

This was usually divided into three great fields, without any fences, walls, or hedges about them. In one of these we should find wheat growing, or some other grain that is sown in the winter; in another we should find a crop of some grain, such as oats, which requires to be sown in the spring; while in the third we should find no crop at all. The next year the arrangement would be changed, and again the next year. In this way, each field bore winter grain one year, spring grain the next, and the third year it was plowed several times and allowed to rest to recover its fertility. While resting it was said to "lie fallow." Then the round was repeated. This whole arrangement was due to the fact that people in those days did not know as much about "fertilizers" and "rotation of crops" as we do now.

The most curious arrangement of all was the way the cultivated land was divided up. Each peasant had from ten to forty acres of land which he cultivated; and part of this lay in each of the three fields. But instead of lying all together, it was scattered about in long narrow strips, each containing about an acre, with strips of unplowed sod separating the plowed strips from one another. This was a very unsatisfactory arrangement, because each peasant had to waste so much time in going from one strip to his next; and nobody has ever been able to explain quite clearly how it ever came about. But this is the arrangement which prevailed in almost all civilized countries throughout the whole of the Middle Ages, and indeed in some places for long afterward.

In return for the land which the peasant held from his lord, he owed the latter many payments and many services. He paid fixed sums of money at different times during the year; and if his lord or his lord's suzerain knighted his eldest son, or married off his eldest daughter, or went on a crusade, or was taken captive and had to be ransomed,—then the peasant must pay an additional sum. At Easter and at other fixed times the peasant brought a gift of eggs or chickens to his lord; and he also gave the lord one or more of his lambs and pigs each year for the use of the pasture. At harvest time the lord received a portion of the grain raised on the peasant's land. In addition the peasant must grind his grain at his lord's mill, and pay the charge for this; he must also bake his bread in the great oven which belonged to the lord, and use his lord's presses in making his cider and wine, paying for each.

These payments  were sometimes burdensome enough, but they were not nearly so burdensome as the services  which the peasants owed their lord. All the labor of cultivating the lord's "domain" land was performed by them. They plowed it with their great clumsy plows and ox-teams; they harrowed it, and sowed it, and weeded it, and reaped it; and finally they carted the sheaves to the lord's barns and threshed them by beating with great jointed clubs or "flails." And when the work was done, the grain belonged entirely to the lord. About two days a week were spent this way in working on the lord's domain; and the peasants could only work on their own lands between times. In addition, if the lord decided to build new towers, or a new gate, or to erect new buildings in the castle, the peasants had to carry stone and mortar for the building and help the paid masons in every way possible. And when the demands of their lord were satisfied, there were still other demands made upon them; for every tenth sheaf of grain, and every tenth egg, lamb and chicken, had to be given to the Church as "tithes."

The peasants did not live scattered about the country as our farmers do, but dwelt all together in an open village. If we should take our stand there on a day in spring, we should see much to interest us. On the hilltop above is the lord's castle; and near by is the parish church with the priest's house. In the distance are the green fields, cut into long narrow strips; and in them we see men plowing and harrowing with teams of slow-moving oxen, while women are busy with hooks and tongs weeding the growing grain. Close at hand in the village we hear the clang of the blacksmith's anvil, and the miller's song as he carries the sacks of grain and flour to and from the mill. Dogs are barking, donkeys are braying, cattle are lowing; and through it all we hear the sound of little children at play or women singing at their work.

The houses themselves were often little better than wooden huts thatched with straw or rushes, though sometimes they were of stone. Even at the best they were dark, dingy, and unhealthful. Chimneys were just beginning to be used in the Middle Ages for the castles of the great lords; but in the peasants' houses the smoke was usually allowed to escape through the doorway. The door was often made so that the upper half could be left open for this purpose, while the lower half was closed. The cattle were usually housed under the same roof with the peasant's family; and in some parts of Europe this practice is still followed.

Within the houses we should not find very much furniture. Here is a list of the things which one family owned in the year 1345:

2 feather beds, 15 linen sheets, and 4 striped yellow counterpanes.
1 hand-mill for grinding meal, a pestle and mortar for pounding grain, 2 grain chests, a kneading trough, and 2 ovens over which coals could be heaped for baking.
2 iron tripods on which to hang kettles over the fire; 2 metal pots and 1 large kettle.
1 metal bowl, 2 brass water jugs, 4 bottles, a copper box, a tin washtub, a metal warming-pan, 2 large chests, a box, a cupboard, 4 tables on trestles, a large table, and a bench.
2 axes, 4 lances, a crossbow, a scythe, and some other tools.

The food and clothing of the peasant were coarse and simple, but were usually sufficient for his needs. At times, however, war or a succession of bad seasons would bring famine upon a district. Then the suffering would be terrible; for there were no provisions saved up, and the roads were so bad and communication so difficult that it was hard to bring supplies from other regions where there was plenty. At such times, the peasants suffered most. They were forced to eat roots, herbs, and the bark of trees; and often they died by hundreds for want of even such food.

Thus you will see that the lot of the peasant was a hard one; and it was often made still harder by the cruel contempt which the nobles felt for those whom they looked upon as "base-born." The name "villains" was given the peasants because they lived in villages; but the nobles have handed down the name as a term of reproach. In a poem, which was written to please the nobles no doubt, the writer scolds at the villain because he was too well fed, and, as he says, "made faces" at the clergy. "Ought he to eat fish?" the poet asks. "Let him eat thistles, briars, thorns, and straw, on Sunday, for fodder; and pea-husks during the week! Let him keep watch all his days, and have trouble. Thus ought villains to live. Ought he to eat meats? He ought to go naked on all fours, and crop herbs with the horned cattle in the fields!"

Of course there were many lords who did not feel this way towards their peasants. Ordinarily the peasant was not nearly so badly off as the slave in the Greek and Roman days; and often, perhaps, he was as well off as many of the peasants of Europe to-day. But there was this difference between his position and that of the peasant now. Many of them could not leave their lord's manors and move elsewhere without their lord's permission. If they did so, their lord could pursue them and bring them back; but if they succeeded in getting to a free town, and dwelt there for a year and a day without being re-captured, then they became freed from their lord, and might dwell where they wished.

This brings us to consider now the Towns during the Middle Ages.

The Germans had never lived in cities in their old homes; so when they came into the Roman Empire they preferred the free life of the country to settling within the town walls. The old Roman cities which had sprung up all over the Empire had already lost much of their importance; and under these country-loving conquerors they soon lost what was left. In many places the inhabitants entirely disappeared; other places decreased in size; and all lost the right which they had had of governing themselves. The inhabitants of the towns became no better off than the peasants who lived in the little villages. In both the people lived by tilling the soil. In both the lord of the district made laws, appointed officers, and settled disputes in his own court. There was little difference indeed between the villages and towns, except a difference in size.

This was the condition of things during the early part of the Middle Ages, while feudalism was slowly arising, and the nobles were beating back the attacks of the Saracens, the Hungarians, and the Northmen. At last, in the tenth and eleventh centuries, as we have seen, this danger was overcome. Now men might travel from place to place without constant danger of being robbed or slain. Commerce and manufacturers began to spring up again, and the people of the towns supported themselves by these as well as by agriculture. With commerce and manufactures, too, came riches. This was especially true in Italy and Southern France, where the townsmen were able by their position to take part in the trade with Constantinople and Egypt, and also to gain money by carrying pilgrims and Crusaders in their ships to the Holy Land. With riches, too, came power; and with power came the desire to free themselves from the rule of their lord.

So, all over civilized Europe, during the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries, we find new towns arising, and old ones getting the right to govern themselves. In Italy the towns gained power first; then in Southern France; then in Northern France; and then along the valley of the river Rhine, and the coasts of the Baltic Sea. Sometimes the towns bought their freedom from their lords; sometimes they won it after long struggles and much fighting. Sometimes the nobles and clergy were wise enough to join with the townsmen, and share in the benefits which the town brought; sometimes they fought them foolishly and bitterly. In Germany and in Italy the power of the kings was not great enough to make much difference one way or the other. In France the kings favored the towns against their lords, and used them to break down the power of the feudal nobles. Then, when the king's power had become so strong that they no longer feared the nobles, they checked the power of the towns lest they in turn might become powerful and independent.

Thus, in different ways and at different times, there grew up the cities of medieval Europe. In Italy there sprang up the free cities of Venice, Florence, Pisa, Genoa, and others, where scholars and artists were to arise and bring a new birth to learning and art; where, also, daring seamen were to be trained, like Columbus, Cabot, and Vespucius, to discover, in later times, the New World. In France the citizens showed their skill by building those beautiful Gothic cathedrals which are still so much admired. In the towns of Germany and Holland clever workmen invented and developed the art of printing, and so made possible the learning and education of to-day. The civilization of modern times, indeed, owes a great debt to these old towns and their sturdy inhabitants.

Let us see now what those privileges were which the townsmen got, and which enabled them to help on the world's progress so much. To us these privileges would not seem so very great. In hundreds of towns in France the lords granted only such rights as the following:

1. The townsmen shall pay only small fixed sums for the rent of their lands, and as a tax when they sell goods, etc.

2. They shall not be obliged to go to war for their lord, unless they can return the same day if they choose.

3. When they have law-suits, the townsmen shall not be obliged to go outside the town to have them tried.

4. No charge shall be made for the use of the town oven; and the townsmen may gather the dead wood in the lord's forest for fuel.

5. The townsmen shall be allowed to sell their property when they wish, and leave the town without hindrance from the lord.

6. Any peasant who remains a year and a day in the town, without being claimed by his lord, shall be free.

In other places the townsmen got in addition the right to elect their own judges; and in still others they got the right to elect all  their officers. Towns of this latter class were sometimes called "communes." Over them the lord had very little right, except to receive such sums of money as it was agreed should be paid to him. In some places, as in Italy, these communes became practically independent, and had as much power as the lords themselves. They made laws, and coined money, and had their vassals, and waged war just as the lords did. But there was this important difference: in the communes the rights belonged to the citizens as a whole, and not to one person. This made all the citizens feel an interest in the town affairs, and produced an enterprising, determined spirit among them. At the same time, the citizens were trained in the art of self-government in using these rights. In this way the world was being prepared for a time when governments like ours, "of the people, for the people, and by the people," should be possible.

But this was to come only after many, many years. The townsmen often used their power selfishly, and in the interest of their families and their own class. Often the rich and powerful townsmen were as cruel and harsh toward the poorer and weaker classes as the feudal lords themselves. Fierce and bitter struggles often broke out in the towns, between the citizens who had power, and those who had none. Often, too, there were great family quarrels, continued from generation to generation, like the one which is told of in Shakespeare's play, "Romeo and Juliet." In Italy there came in time to be two great parties called the "Guelfs" and the "Ghibellines." At first there was a real difference in views between them; but by and by they became merely two rival factions. Then Guelfs were known from Ghibellines by the way they cut their fruit at table; by the color of roses they wore; by the way they yawned, and spoke, and were clad. Often the struggles and brawls became so fierce in a city that to get a little peace the townsmen would call in an outsider to rule over them for a while. With the citizens so divided among themselves, it will not surprise you to learn that the communes everywhere at last lost their independence. They passed under the rule of the king, as in France; or else, as happened in Italy, they fell into the power of some "tyrant" or local lord.

But let us think, not of the weaknesses and mistakes of these old townsmen, but of their earnest, busy life, and its quaint surroundings.

Imagine yourself a peasant lad, fleeing from your lord or coming for the first time to the market in the city. As we approach the city gates we see that the walls are strong and crowned with turrets; and the gate is defended with drawbridge and portcullis like the entrance to a castle. Within, are narrow, winding streets, with rows of tall-roofed houses, each with its garden attached. The houses themselves are more like our houses to-day than like the Greek and Roman ones; for they have no courtyard in the interior and are several stories high. The roadway is unpaved, and full of mud; and there are no sewers. If you walk the streets after nightfall, you must carry a torch to light your footsteps, for there are no street-lamps. There are no policemen; but if you are out after dark, you must beware the "city watch," who take turns in guarding the city, for they will make you give a strict account of yourself.

Now, however, it is day, and we need have no fear. Presently we come into the business parts of the city, and there we find the different trades grouped together in different streets. Here are the goldsmiths, and there are the tanners; here the cloth merchants, and there the butchers; here the armor-smiths, and there the money-changers. The little shops are all on the ground floor, with their wares exposed for sale in the open windows. Let us look in at one of the goldsmiths' shops. The shop-keeper and his wife are busily engaged waiting on customers and inviting passers-by to stop and examine their goods. Within we see several men and boys at work, making the goods which their master sells. There the gold is melted and refined; the right amount of alloy is mixed with it; then it is cast, beaten, and filed into the proper shape. Then perhaps the article is enameled and jewels are set in it. All of these things are done in this one little shop; and so it is for each trade. The workmen must all begin at the beginning, and start with the rough material; and the "apprentices," as the boys are called, must learn each of the processes by which the raw material is turned into the finished article.

Thus a long term of apprenticeship is necessary for each trade, lasting sometimes for ten years. During this time the boys are fed, clothed and lodged with their master's family above the shop, and receive no pay. If they misbehave, he has the right to punish them; and if they run away, he can pursue them and bring them back. Their life, however, is not so hard as that of the peasant boys; and through it all they look forward to the time when their apprenticeship shall be completed. Then they will become full members of the "guild" of their trade, and may work for whatever master they please. For a while they may wander from city to city, working now for this master and now for that. In each city they will find the workers at their trade all united together into a guild, with a charter from the king or other lord which permits them to make rules for carrying on of that business and to shut out all persons from it who have not served a regular apprenticeship. But the more ambitious boys will not be content with a mere workman's life. They will look forward still further to a time when they shall have saved up money enough to start in business for themselves. Then they too will become masters, with workmen and apprentices under them; and perhaps, in course of time, if they grow in wealth and wisdom, they may be elected rulers over the city.

So we find the apprentices of the different trades working and dreaming. We leave them to their dreams and pass on. As we wander about we find many churches and chapels; and perhaps we come after a while to a great "cathedral" or bishop's church, rearing its lofty roof to the sky. No pains have been spared to make this as grand and imposing as possible; and we gaze upon its great height with awe, and wonder at the marvelously quaint and clever patterns in which the stone is carved.

We leave this also after a time; and then we come to the "belfrey" or town-hall. This is the real center of the life of the city. Here is the strong square tower, like the "donjon" of a castle, where the townsmen may make their last stand in case an enemy succeeds in entering their walls, and they cannot beat him back in their narrow streets. On top of the tower is the bell, with watchmen always on the lookout to give the signal in case of fire or danger. The bell is also used for more peaceful purposes, as it gives the signal each morning and evening for the workmen all over the city to begin and to quit work; and it also summons the citizens from time to time, to public meetings. Within the tower are dungeons for prisoners, and meeting rooms for the rulers of the city. There also are strong rooms where the city money is kept, together with the city seal. Lastly there is the charter which gives the city its liberties; this is the most precious of all the city possessions.

Even in ordinary times the city presents a bustling, busy appearance. If it is a city which holds a fair once or twice a year, what shall we say of it then? For several weeks at such times the city is one vast store. Strange merchants come from all parts of the land and set up their booths and stalls along the streets, and the city shops are crowded with goods. For miles about the people throng in to buy the things they need. Take a look at the picture of the streets of a city during fair-time in the thirteenth century. In the middle of the picture we see a townsman and his wife returning home after making their purchases. Behind them are a knight and his attendant, on horseback, picking their way through the crowd. On the right hand side of the street is the shop of a cloth merchant; and we see the merchant and his wife showing goods to customers, while workmen are unpacking a box in the street. Next door is a tavern, with its sign hung out; and near this we see a cross which some pious person has erected at the street corner. On the left-hand side of the street we see a cripple begging for alms. Back of him is another cloth-merchant's shop; and next to this is a money-changer's table, where a group of people are having money weighed to see that there is no cheating in the payment. Beyond this is an elevated stage, on which a company of tumblers and jugglers are performing, with a crowd of people about them. In the background we see some tall-roofed houses, topped with turrets, and beyond these we can just make out the spire of a church rising to the sky.

This is indeed a busy scene; and it is a picture which we may carry away with us. It well shows the energy and the activity which, during the later Middle Ages, made the towns the starting place for so many important movements.

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